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Prisoners Of The Ghostland Review: The Age Of Cage

The marketing team for "Prisoners of the Ghostland," the latest film from director Sion Sono ("Love Exposure," "Tokyo Vampire Hotel"), has wisely latched on to star Nicolas Cage's own declaration that the movie might be "the wildest" project in his entire career. That's saying something coming from a guy who's done everything from "Vampire's Kiss" to "Mandy," and if you follow Cage because you want to see him in pure, unhinged, genre movie God-mode, "Prisoners of the Ghostland" looks like exactly the kind of film primed to deliver those particular goods.

But there's more to Nicolas Cage than the amount of time he spends pulling face and wailing into the camera, and I'm not just talking about the incredible pairing that is Cage's daring style and Sono's knack for visuals. "Prisoners of the Ghostland" is arriving in the same year as "Pig," a film that brilliantly showcases a more subdued, but no less intense, version of Cage, providing an important contrast that, in the end, heightens the impact of both films. Rich with visual dynamism, featuring bold supporting performances, and driven by the boiler room of Cage's own voracious appetite for diving into roles, "Prisoners of the Ghostland" is an all-out cinematic onslaught that you'll be recovering from for quite some time.

The (Ghost)land that time forgot

The setup for the film, written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai, is actually rather simple. In a post-apocalyptic future town dominated by geisha and samurai culture, a man known only as Hero (Cage) is dragged out of jail to run an errand for a domineering local warlord known only as the Governor (Bill Moseley). It seems the Governor's "granddaughter," Bernice (Sofia Boutella), has fled his company and struck out into the deadly realms known only as the Ghostland, and he wants Hero to bring the girl back. To ensure Hero complies and doesn't just run off on his own, the Governor outfits him with a leather body suit equipped with a few carefully placed explosive devices: A couple on the neck, one on each arm ... and one on each testicle. With just days to complete his mission, Hero ventures out into the wild Ghostlands, and finds another world full of not just new threats, but new meaning that he perhaps didn't expect to encounter.

With this setup, Sono's efforts as a stylist pay off immediately, rendering "Prisoners of the Ghostland" something that looks and feels unlike any other post-apocalyptic movie you've seen, and creating the sense that no matter how tired of the subgenre are, you'll find something surprising at work here. Hendry and Safai's script, and by extension Sono's direction, is steeped in a hybridization of American Western cinema and Samurai film, and then that strange stew is perfumed with the wastelands of George Miller and the pageantry of John Woo. From the glowing streets of the Governor's domain to the mannequin-littered Ghostlands, the film is a visual feast, and nearly every frames to hold the potential for an entirely different movie lurking in the background.

But there's more to "Prisoners of the Ghostland" and its place in this particular subgenre than just inventive, immersive visuals. There's a tonal distinctiveness to the film beyond how it looks, cemented by Sono's pacing, the deliberate dialogue of Hendry and Safai's script, and the ways in which everyone from Boutella to Moseley chooses to deliver that dialogue. The Ghostland, the film tells us, is a realm in which time has (literally, metaphorically, or both, depending on who you choose to believe) stopped, because it had to, because to move forward would spell doom for everyone. There are larger narrative reasons for this that I won't spoil here, tied to systems of power and the people who perpetuate them to keep control, but tonally it creates the sense that nearly everyone in the film is devoted to maintaining a certain static, monolithic presence. It's a feeling that runs through the film's diction, its costuming, its production design, and even the way in which the action sequences play out. In a world where everyone is frozen in place, "Prisoners of the Ghostland” becomes a story about the few people who are daring to move forward, and the price they pay for that.

Committed performances

One of those people daring to push ahead and a world that's standing still is, of course, Cage's Hero, and while this performance will undoubtedly go down as one of Cage's great works of mayhem, I think there's more going on here than many audiences will be liable to give him credit for. Yes, he plays the big moments big, and the comedy broad, and he's not afraid to get loud and even wacky when the moment calls for it, but there's something else happening too. There's an element in just about every Nicolas Cage performance — take your pick from "Raising Arizona" to "Pig" to "Con Air" — of absolute conviction, of the sense that no matter how unhinged the movie around him is, and how far he goes with his voice or his mannerism, he's going to make you believe it. It doesn't always work, but he feels to me like one of cinema's great daredevils, a guy determined to find the truth and soul in just about anything. "Prisoners of the Ghostland" is the kind of movie that calls for daredevils, and Cage makes it count, injecting a real sense of pathos and power in Hero's journey (get it?) that makes the movie even more compelling than Sono's visuals already made it.

But of course, he's far from alone in that journey, and Boutella is willing to go toe-to-toe with him along it. Her role's not as flashy, but she makes her moments count with flashes of vulnerability timed perfectly alongside raw power. Throw in an impossibly cool performance from Tak Sakaguchi as the Governor's enforcer Yasujiro, and Moseley using his natural born scene-stealer gifts to turn the Governor into an unforgettable villain, and you've got an ensemble piece that crackles with personality even when Cage isn't in the frame.

"Prisoners of the Ghostland" will undoubtedly not land for everyone. There are moviegoers who will find it a little too over the top, a little too obsessed with its own peculiar tone, and even a little slow at times as Sono and company pursue little thematic avenues alongside the main thrust of the plot. If it works for you, though, it really works. This is uncompromising, unapologetic, unhinged cinema spectacle, and proves once again that Nicolas Cage is one of genre film's greatest assets.

"Prisoners of the Ghostland" is in theaters and on VOD Friday.